Report (1st Day) (Continued)
Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.
8: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) Each five-year parliament shall include a minimum of five parliamentary sessions.”
My Lords, this is a very simple amendment with a very simple objective which I hope the Government will be able to accept. As the House knows, I find the Bill entirely unattractive and wish that we were simply getting rid of it, but if we are to have a Bill where there are fixed five-year Parliaments, then it follows, as night follows day, that there ought to be a rule governing the number of Sessions within the fixed five years.
It is very odd trying to put our constitution into a straitjacket, but the Government seem intent on doing so. This amendment was considered in Committee but not very satisfactory answers were given. The reason I have been inspired to table it is that whereas we normally know that a parliamentary Session will last about a year—with the exception of the first year of a Parliament, which can frequently be 18 months, from, say, May in one year until November the following year—I am sorry to say that this Government have unilaterally decided that there would be a two-year Session to begin this Parliament.
If we were following the normal conventions of our democracy then we would not be debating the Report stage of a Bill now, we would be having a Queen’s Speech. It is a year since the general election and that is the normal length of a Session of Parliament. The Government have already told us that the next general election will be in May 2015, so it seems an incredibly simple proposition that there should be five Sessions of one year each. Normally it would be completely unnecessary for me or anyone else to move an amendment requiring that this should be the case, but the Government have broken the normal rules. I do not know where the decision to have a two-year Session came from. I ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, what consultation the Government had with the Opposition or anyone else when they decided that we should have a two-year Session of Parliament.
As we all know, the sessional discipline is part of the delicate balance between Government and Opposition. Oppositions get stronger, in a sense, as the Session progresses because the Government know that they are up against the deadline of a Queen’s Speech; and we have had, quite properly, to establish precise mechanisms to enable a Bill to be carried over from one Session to the next. I say “quite properly” because we have all recognised in the past—although apparently not now—that it would be quite wrong for a Government simply to be able to extend at their convenience the periods between Queen’s Speeches.
As I say, I do not like translating conventions into rules, but it is necessary in this case. Why are we not having a Queen’s Speech now? Why are the Government not bringing the first year of this Parliament to a conclusion in the normal way, after 12 months, making concessions on Bills—which is what Governments do towards the end of a Session—and then preparing for the next statement of the Government’s policies and legislative objectives, which of course is what we get with a new Queen’s Speech? If the Government are intent on having five years after five years after five years ad infinitum—although I am obviously delighted with the amendment that has been passed that will require any new Government to think again about this—what could conceivably be the objection to insisting in this legislation, which provides us with the opportunity, that there should be a minimum of five Sessions in a five-year Parliament?
I looked in vain, having reread the Committee stage when this was discussed, but no one spoke against it except the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I got the feeling that he was not wildly enthusiastic about speaking against it. The only objections that he offered were that this could present problems should there be a Dissolution of Parliament under the terms of this legislation in less than five years. We all know that that is a possibility; again, it is a part of the Bill that not many of us like, but there are precise provisions for saying how Parliaments can be of a period of less than five years. If the Government have found the mechanism for dealing with a Parliament that lasts less than five years, surely it is not difficult to find a mechanism for dealing with the consequences for parliamentary Sessions. It is unfortunate that we have to go down this road but, if we have, it cannot be beyond the skill of parliamentary draftsmen to deal with that objection.
The only other case that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, offered in Committee comes in col. 526 of Hansard on 21 March. He explained why the Government decided that it would be not a one-year Session but a two-year Session; it was announced unilaterally to Parliament last September without consultation, as far as I know—although I would be delighted to be proved wrong in that respect. The explanation that was given was as follows:
“An announcement was made in September, which would normally have been between a third and half way through the Session”.
He is referring to the last Session, which should have concluded this May, as I have suggested.
“There was an option to truncate the Session about now”—
he was speaking in March—
“but it was thought that the best thing to do was to go to next year”.
The Minister is very precise with words; he is a lawyer and is careful what he says. It is not exactly truncating a Session to suggest that it should be for a year, however. It really is a fairly loose use of the word.
Does the noble Lord not recall that the normal practice has been for the first Session after a May election—indeed, I think that it happened with almost every Government elected when Mr Blair was Prime Minister—to last not a year but until the following autumn? So when I say truncated, I mean that there would not normally have been a Queen’s Speech this May; it would still have been in November. The first Session would probably have gone 18 months, so to have had a Queen’s Speech in March or April would have been to truncate the normal practice after a May general election.
The problem with that argument is that, yes, it is true that if the election is in May then normally you have the Queen’s Speech the following year, in November. But if there is an election in October—and one that I vividly remember is the one in October 1974, because it was when the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, went out and I came in—the Queen’s Speech is the following November. The convention is that the Queen’s Speech is in November and if the sequence of elections means that that does not happen, it is quite right that there is a long Session of 18 months. There is a bit of a case for that, I suppose; all Governments are wild with enthusiasm when they come in and have lots of exciting things to propose, such as Fixed-term Parliament Bills, and so on. So it goes for a longish Session. But this was a choice for the Government, once they had decided that there would be a five-year Parliament, between having a year Session or a two-year Session. If he thinks there is not much to choose between an 18-month Session, which as he rightly says obtains when there is a May election, and a two-year Session, let me say that it would have been heaven to me as Chief Whip to have had a two-year Session. There is no pressure on you and no trouble; you can spend as long as you like on Committee and Report stages, and so on. So I do not think that that argument held up very well.
I do not suggest evil intent on the part of the Minister or anyone else in the Government in this respect at all. I am simply saying that not much thought went into what was in fact a quite substantial shift of power between Government and Opposition. As I said, that is a pretty delicate matter in our parliamentary procedures in both Houses, because it shifted the balance of power substantially in favour of the Government. I thought that the Minister really gave the game away in this second sentence:
“There was an option to truncate the Session about now, but it was thought that the best thing to do was to go to next year”.—[Official Report, 21/3/11; col. 526.]
The question from where I am standing is: the best thing to do for whom? In whose interest was it unilaterally to determine that there should be a two-year Session?
I simply put two questions to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. First, was there any consultation through the normal channels about the Government's decision unilaterally to decide, for the first time in the past 30 or 40 years—I am sure that the historians could go much further—on a two-year Session which is massively to the Government’s advantage? Secondly, I really would like to know, once it was determined to be the “best thing to do”, in whose interest the decision was thought to be made. I beg to move.
My Lords, we support this amendment. It goes to the heart of this Government’s claim that they wish to empower the legislature as against the Executive. The reason it matters, as my noble friend Lord Grocott said, is that where there is a restriction on the time to get legislation through, there is a huge incentive for any Government, whatever their hue, to reach agreement with the Opposition on as many issues as possible. If they do not reach agreement on those issues, the consequence is that their legislation is delayed.
Parliament is disempowered if a Government feel able, as this one did, to double the length of a Session. This Government did so on a whim, as there was no consultation. It appears from the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that they simply decided to go for two years without giving any justification. This House is entitled to hear the Government's opinion on the number of Sessions there should be in a Parliament and their commitment in relation to that. Do they understand the importance of empowering the Chamber in each House by having a limit on the time available to them for the passage of legislation?
If satisfactory answers are not given, this should be put to the vote. It is an important issue. The answers must include one to the question which my noble friend Lord Grocott put, because that is really the litmus test of how committed the Government are to the idea of there being a year-on-year Session. This is another opportunity for the Government to put their money where their mouth is. Are they true exponents of what they describe as the new politics, or are they simply motivated by a desire to make their life as easy as possible—that is, the worst sort of Executive?
My Lords, I apologise for speaking at this late hour but I made it clear in Committee that if anybody referred to Mr Asquith again, it would stimulate me into speaking. Although I was not here to hear the reference to him at the beginning of this afternoon's proceedings, it was alluded to later in the debate on Amendment 1. Therefore, here I am, on my feet.
Your Lordships’ House will recall the Sherlock Holmes case where the great detective pointed out to Dr Watson the significance of the dog not barking in the night-time. Those of your Lordships who were here to listen carefully to the powerful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, on Amendment 1 will have noticed that he omitted from his list of five-year Parliaments in the post-war era the period from 1945 to 1950. He thus omitted the great achievements of the Labour Government of the Earl Attlee of that period.
In generosity, I take it that the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, realised that it required a five-year Parliament to produce the achievements of what I understand the Labour Party has always thought was the greatest Labour Government of them all. As to the reason he omitted it, I suggest that it was considered either that it would be sacrilege ever to run the risk of toppling the Attlee Government’s record from its plinth or that Labour had given up hope of ever challenging the Attlee Government’s record and felt that Labour should conceal the dilemma I am describing by limiting the life of any future Labour Government to, at most, four years as a self-immolating, self-denying ordinance. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan—not to mention the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer—was prudent enough not to announce which of the cases I have adumbrated was correct and now we shall never know.
Your Lordships’ House knows my tremendous admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It is an index of my forgiveness of the fact that I am never going to know the answer as to why the Attlee Government was omitted from the analysis of Amendment 1 that I say to my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench that I think he has a question to answer from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak on this but, reflecting on what has been said, I am rather torn. I accept the logic of what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has said—I think that the argument he has advanced is impeccable—but I am reflecting on the value of the sessional cut-off, keeping it to a year, as has been advocated. It is quite right that the sessional cut-off is a discipline on the Government and it gives some leverage to the Opposition—capital “O”, and sometimes small “o”—because of the pressure. I am not sure that compression within one year as the length of the Session necessarily benefits Parliament, because legislation has to be got through in that time and it limits the two Houses in the amount of time they can devote to deliberation in Committee. In the Commons, there is a problem now with Public Bill Committees, because there is very little time between taking evidence and having then to consider the Bill in the normal way.
I am just reflecting on the fact that, while I accept the logic of what the noble Lord has said, maybe we need to think a little more imaginatively about how long each Session actually lasts. In a five-year Parliament, maybe we should think about a three or four-Session Parliament. There needs to be some discipline, but one has to try to get the balance on that right. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, because he has prompted me to think about that. We perhaps ought to reflect a little more seriously about it; there is a problem with the nature of rushed legislation of this sort, when perhaps we should be sitting back and thinking a little more constructively about how we want our Parliament to be run to the benefit of Parliament. As I say, there is that balance to be met between giving leverage to the Opposition and benefiting Parliament so that it has proper time to thoroughly scrutinise what the Government are bringing forward.
I suppose we could do what the Scottish Parliament does, which is to have no sub-division into annual Sessions within a four-year term—apparently shortly to be a five-year term in the Scottish Parliament. I think that we should either go the whole way in abolishing parliamentary Sessions and having some kind of continuing, rolling process of legislation, or have a rational, predictable, orderly division of the time available in a Parliament.
The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Grocott should not be necessary. It is clearly undesirable to legislate on internal proceedings in Parliament, but we have been driven to it by the behaviour of the coalition Government in awarding themselves a two-year Session in which they should have been able to get anything at all through. Their potential abuse of parliamentary strength has been mitigated only by their incompetence in failing to take advantage of the situation that they created for themselves. In the early months of this Session, we had almost no legislation introduced; we then had an immense amount of time spent on constitutional legislation, which the public did not want, culminating in the fiasco of the AV referendum. We now have the pause in the NHS legislation. I am given to understand that there are going to be new Bills introduced at Second Reading this summer, so that even with a two-year Session, they may run out of time to complete their programme; it really is pretty chaotic.
My noble friend does the House, and indeed Parliament, a service in drawing attention to this consideration. While I would not wish to see his amendment get on to the statute book, he very properly challenges the Government to think carefully about how they handle proceedings within this House. I do not want a written constitution but I want respect for the unwritten constitution.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for affording the House a further opportunity to consider and scrutinise this point, which, as has been indicated, he first raised in Committee. At that point I indicated that the two-year Session that we are currently in was intended as a transitional situation so that we could get into a position where we had 12-month parliamentary Sessions that fitted in, should Parliament pass a fixed-term Parliament Act.
I draw your Lordships’ attention to the Written Ministerial Statement made by my right honourable friend the Leader of the other place, Sir George Young, on 23 March. He reiterated the Government’s decision to extend the current Session of Parliament to spring 2012,
“in order to ensure a smooth transition towards five, 12-month Sessions over a Parliament, which would be a beneficial consequence of Parliament agreeing the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/3/11; col. 57WS.]
I hope that the House and the noble Lord will be assured that it is our intention that there should normally be five Sessions in a five-year Parliament. While the expectation is that future Sessions will last for 12 months, it remains inappropriate to enshrine that in statute; indeed, I think that I understood the noble Lord himself to indicate that he would prefer that working practices and conventions were not enshrined in statute. It is our intention that in future Parliaments there should be five 12-month Sessions.
In the Bill we have sought to do only what is necessary to establish fixed-term Parliaments for the United Kingdom. I am not convinced that the case has been made for legislating for the number of Sessions. The Bill does not abolish the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament, which will continue to be used to set parliamentary Sessions, nor does the Bill affect the powers of each House to adjourn. It is worth noting that the Constitution Committee has endorsed our decision not to abolish the prerogative power to prorogue.
Future Sessions after this one will last for only 12 months. The noble Lord asked me about the points that I made in Committee. When I talked about truncating this Session, that was on the basis that, as he acknowledged, when elections have been held in May or June it has been customary for that first Session to continue through to the following October or November. To have had a Queen’s Speech around now would therefore have meant truncating what had been expected at the outset.
I have made it clear that the decision to go for two years and thereafter to have 12-monthly Sessions was taken not in May last year but at a later stage. I am not aware that there was any consultation—I accept that criticism—but this was intended to be a transitional measure. By that stage, the Government’s legislative programme had been announced and it would have been very difficult if we had moved immediately to a 12-month Session for the first Session, although that could have been done if it had been thought about at the outset. I hope that the House will accept that that is the purpose of this being a two-year Session. It is not intended that this should be repeated. My right honourable friend the Leader of the other place has indicated that it would now be our intention to move to five 12-month Sessions in a Parliament.
I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Norton about this always being in the interests of Parliament. My experience in your Lordships’ House in the run-up to the most recent general election is that, with the final Session starting in November and finishing in March in order to accommodate a May election, we have tended to have a short Session that I do not believe allows proper scrutiny of legislation. This led to a very unfortunate situation in the wash-up where large parts of Bills were ditched, some of which are now on the statute book but certainly did not have the kind of scrutiny that we would normally expect. Having five 12-month Sessions will allow for proper planning of legislation. While it would be unwise to say that there will never be any kind of wash-up at the end of the final Session, one hopes that there will be far less than has been the case hitherto. One of the advantages of a fixed-term Parliament is that it will be possible to plan a legislative programme in a way that will not lead to these log-jams at the end, when much legislation is virtually nodded through.
The decision having been taken to move to fixed-term Parliaments, and since we seem—for better or worse—to have moved into a situation where elections are held in May, the Bill provides for elections in May. Therefore, it makes sense that we should have annual May-to-May Sessions. I repeat: the current two-year Session is a transition. No doubt what we gain here is that there is only a finite amount of legislative time in the Parliament as a whole if it lasts for five years. It would not be appropriate to put that in the statute. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to reiterate the position and to flag up what my right honourable friend the Leader of the other place has said on this matter. With these reassurances, I hope the noble Lord will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for that response. He simply holds a fundamental view on the constitution. So do I, but it is a different one. He is comfortable with a legislative programme being neatly sliced and organised over a fixed-term Parliament, whereas I have been straightforward with the House in saying that I am not at all comfortable with that. I like the flexibility that normally obtains with our parliamentary system. I do not even have the problem that he has with the last Session of a four-year Parliament quite frequently being a five or six-month pre-election Session. All that the Bill will do is make sure that it is a 12-month pre-election Session instead of a six-month pre-election Session. It will also lead to a lot of uncertainty.
I was straightforward with the House in saying that I was, in some respects, very uncomfortable with my own amendment. For the reasons I have already set out, I do not like putting our constitution in any more of a straitjacket than it needs to be. I am very grateful for the contributions that have been made. As ever, I find myself agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, on most things, particularly his reference to the 1945 to 1950 Labour Government having been the greatest Labour Government. I would go marginally further and say that it was the greatest peacetime Government in the history of this country; there is only a word’s difference between us.
I was taken with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I agree with him that maybe a year is not necessarily the best period. Maybe it is worth discussing that. I strongly believe in the convention that we have. If a Government are unable to contain their legislative programme within an agreed period of time, there should be an agreement by either House to carry a Bill over from one Session to the next only after the most rigorous tests. However, I take the noble Lord’s point. I must admit that I was stopped in my tracks by my noble friend, who reminded me that it was against the philosophy of several of us to try to put the proceedings of this Parliament into too strong a legislative framework.
The point has been made, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, has acknowledged. It is written in blood in Hansard that there will be 12-month Sessions for the remainder of this Parliament until the happy day when it comes to a conclusion and a Labour Government can repeal the whole of this legislation. In light of what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
11: Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out subsection (5)
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 15 and 17. These amendments remove the provision that enables the Prime Minister by statutory instrument to vary the date of the general election by two months either way. We discussed subsection (5) in some detail in Committee and, in the light of that discussion, I came to the conclusion that rather than trying to build in safeguards or qualifications, as I sought to do on that occasion and as my noble friend Lord Rennard seeks to do today, it would be best to remove the provision altogether.
The principal reason why subsection (5) is included is because it is in the devolution legislation. It appears to have been included without much thought. I have still not been able to find anyone who can think of a circumstance in which the provision to bring the election forward by two months could apply. What sort of emergency can one anticipate before it has happened? Is there really any prospect of the Prime Minister announcing that the election should be brought forward by two months because the Government anticipate that there may be a foot and mouth outbreak at the time of the election?
It is also not clear why the subsection is needed, given the provisions of Clause 2. If there is all-party agreement that the election should be brought forward by one or two months, one can introduce an early election motion under Clause 2(1). That would cover it. The only difference between this subsection and utilising a motion under Clause 2(1) would be that this subsection provides a role for this House, because both Houses have to approve the order, but I do not see why we should be empowered to block an election being held up to two months early when we cannot exercise a similar power over a motion to hold it some time in the preceding four years and 10 months. I also doubt that we would wish to challenge the will of the House of Commons on this matter. I thus favour the removal of the provision for the Prime Minister to bring forward a statutory instrument to bring forward the date of the election by up to two months. My noble friend Lord Rennard seeks to do likewise.
I also favour removing the other half of the subsection. Enabling the election to be delayed by two months is an arbitrary provision. Why two months and not three? A delay needs to be determined in relation to the particular crisis that prompts it. Given that, and the likelihood that any delay will be required only in the most exceptional circumstances, I suggest leaving it to the enactment of a specific Act tailored to the needs of the time, as happened with the foot and mouth crisis in 2001.
The requirement for an Act also emphasises that it is exceptional and does not, as this provision may do, tempt a Prime Minister to use his parliamentary majority to approve an order to delay the election for the purposes of political gain. Two months can make quite a difference. This House would be the only potential block on the provision being used in this way, but we may wish to avoid the potential for a major clash between the two Houses.
My noble friend Lord Rennard seeks to retain the provision but subject it to similar safeguards to those that apply under Clause 2(1) in relation to an early election. If one were to retain the provision to delay an election by two months, I would very much support his amendment. However, on balance, we may as well remove the whole subsection. There is no need for the “before” provision, and the “after” provision is likely to be so exceptional—and may require a delay of more than two months—that we should leave it to Parliament at the time to craft a measure appropriate to the nature of the crisis. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 12, 14 and 16 in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. Amendments 12 and 14 reflect the position that I set out in Committee, when I made plain that I could not see any justification for a provision to bring forward polling day in a general election by two months, in the way that the Bill originally suggested. In all my consideration of the debates here and in another place, I have yet to hear advanced any argument for why it might be sensible to say that a Prime Minister might be able to foresee circumstances in which he needed to bring forward the election by two months.
As the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said, no Prime Minister could be so prescient as to foresee such events and decide to bring forward the election in anticipation of them. I simply do not see the justification for the provision. However, there will remain in the Bill and in the detail now in Amendment 20, which we will come to later, a power for Parliament to have elections early if MPs vote for it by a two-thirds majority and this House endorses that proposal. I have no doubt that if there is reasonable political consensus on the need to bring forward polling day and have an early election, that will happen.
Amendment 16 deals with a power for which, I accept, there is a rather stronger case. That is the power for delay by two months. The commonly cited example of how a general election planned for one day might be postponed for a short while is our experience in 2001, when the foot and mouth epidemic broke out. Everyone knew that we would probably have an election in May. We had planned to have local elections in May. Those local elections were postponed and the general election, expected to coincide with them in May, was also postponed. I am therefore content that some power remains in the Bill for a delay and am now fairly convinced that there is at least some provision in the Bill to safeguard against abuse. That safeguard is this House, which would be asked to approve such a delay.
I was seeking through Amendment 16 to have a further safeguard built in for that—also a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons—but I now look at the changes that the Government have made by accepting Amendment 20. That dispenses with the role of the Speaker’s certificate. On that basis, I am prepared to accept that Amendment 16 is no longer appropriate, and I will not press that case; but the case for Amendments 12 and 14 remains strong. They simply retain the principle that if polling day is to be brought forward, it is Parliament by reasonable consensus and not the Prime Minister who should decide to bring forward the election.
The whole purpose of the legislation is to fix parliamentary terms at five years, notwithstanding the amendment which this House narrowly approved some hours ago. We need to remove from the Prime Minister the privilege of being able to hold the starting pistol in a race where he is also one of the runners. Amendments in the same form as Amendments 12 and 14 received substantial support from across the House when they were tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Rooker, in Committee. I therefore hope that the Minister will have had time since Committee to reflect on those amendments and to consider them favourably.
My Lords, both the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Rennard, proceed on the basis that the power to bring forward or postpone a general election would be exercised only in circumstances of crisis. It is very difficult—or impossible—to foresee such a crisis. I give noble Lords a possible example of when one would need to use such provisions where there is no crisis. Suppose that this country is awarded the Olympics or the World Cup. Each of those events will occupy a period of two weeks, for the Olympics, or four weeks, for the World Cup. One would know of such events years in advance, so there would be no crisis, but it would be entirely appropriate for a general election not to take place by consent of all concerned during such events.
I had thought before hearing the debate that I would tend to support the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, but I found what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said powerful. Everyone appears to agree that the election is unlikely to be called early anyway; if there is sufficient consensus for it to be called early, that can be dealt with by the two-thirds provision. If it is to be up to two months late, that is a moderately massive exception and if it is to be done, there needs to be consensus. If there is that degree of consensus, it is extremely likely that emergency legislation can be got through in order to achieve it. We are much better off being certain. Having not intended to take this view, I am afraid that I found what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, rather powerful. I invite the Government to reflect on what the noble Lord said and perhaps bring the issue back at Third Reading. If the Minister brings back the issue at Third Reading in a way that reflects the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, or alternatively says, either now or at Third Reading, why the noble Lord is wrong, I would not support the noble Lord. However, if he does not, my inclination is to support the noble Lord, Lord Norton, either now or, as seems more sensible, after the Government have had an opportunity to reflect and come back at Third Reading.
My Lords, as has been indicated, the purpose of the operation of the order-making power in Clause 1(5) is to provide, by a resolution of both Houses, for a Parliament to be extended by two months or for an election to be brought forward by up to two months because of an emergency or unforeseen circumstance. The Bill provides for five-year fixed terms and it is envisaged that elections would happen on the first Thursday in May every five years. However, we are conscious that there could be a short-term crisis that would mean that it would not be practicable to hold the election on the prescribed date. As was discussed in earlier debates and again this evening, such a scenario occurred in 2001 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease meant that it was necessary to delay the date of the local elections in England, which were set by statute, and primary legislation was required. As it was only four years into the Parliament, it did not theoretically affect the date of the general election, although the widely anticipated date of the election was postponed because of the outbreak.
The power would allow the Prime Minister to vary the date by affirmative order by two months, earlier or later. It is worth bearing in mind that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee examined this power and concluded that it,
“does not consider the power to be inappropriate in principle”.
However, it recommended that the Bill should be amended to require that a statement setting out the Prime Minister's reasons for proposing the change of polling date must be laid before both Houses at the same time as the draft order. The Government considered and listened to the recommendation and the case made by the committee and, as noble Lords will recall, made the appropriate amendment in Committee, which indicated that we were ready and willing to respond to the committee.
The power is deliberately framed to be non-prescriptive. It is intended to be used in emergencies when we cannot predict what situation will arise, and to deal with a variety of scenarios. When including this power in the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Norton indicated, we looked at powers in the devolution Acts that allow for the dates of general elections to the devolved institutions to be delayed or brought forward. In the case of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, there would have been no point in bringing forward the election.
I accepted earlier that I had struggled to find a reason why we might want to bring forward an election. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that the Olympics or the World Cup might be such occasions. We considered these as well. We know that the Olympics are unlikely to be awarded again to Britain for the foreseeable future, given that they will happen here next year. Regrettably, England did not succeed in its bid for the World Cup, and I am not sure that Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland have a bid in preparation. I offer as a piece of political trivia that, such is the importance of the World Cup, the one parliamentary election in recent times not to be held on Thursday was the Hamilton by-election in 1978, which was held on a Wednesday so that it did not clash with Scotland's opening match in the World Cup in Argentina. I am not sure that it did Scotland much good.
My apologies. I am not sure that the World Cup has traditionally been at this time of year. It would clash with the exciting climax to the Premiership and the build-up to the FA Cup final, the Scottish Cup final and the Scottish Premier League, whatever shape or form they may be in by 2026. My point is that we have struggled and we cannot readily think of a situation in which one might wish to bring forward an election.
It was our intention to future-proof the Bill, but, with regard to Amendments 12 and 14 in the names of my noble friends Lord Rennard, Lord Tyler and Lord Marks, I do not believe that by accepting them we undermine what we seek to achieve in the Bill. As has been pointed out, if it was necessary to bring forward a scheduled general election because the unforeseen event that none of us can think of actually happens, it would be open to the other place to pass a Dissolution Motion with the support of at least two- thirds of all MPs to trigger an early general election. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Norton. In the light of that, the Government would be willing to support these amendments and I hope your Lordships’ House would be willing to accept them.
Amendment 16, also in the names of my noble friends Lord Rennard, Lord Tyler and Lord Marks, provides that an order made by the Prime Minister under Clause 1(5) must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the other place. That amendment also provides a role for the Speaker of the House of Commons in certifying that the order was approved in a Division and had the support of at least two-thirds of all MPs.
I can see the thinking behind these amendments, as Clause 2 provides that a vote on an early Dissolution in the other place will require the support of at least two-thirds of all MPs. This measure in the Bill is designed to ensure that an early general election can take place where there is cross-party consensus on this. The two-thirds majority will put this power beyond the reach of a Government, since no Government since the Second World War have enjoyed a two-thirds majority, and the technical specifics of this mechanism have been broadly endorsed by the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House.
However, the order-making power of Clause 1(5), which allows the Prime Minister to vary the date of a scheduled general election by up to two months, is somewhat different. Unlike the power the Bill would give the House of Commons for an early Dissolution, this power is limited to varying the date of a poll by up to two months. The key difference is that there are different safeguards applied to the order-making power. First, any order to vary the date of a scheduled general election would be subject to the affirmative procedure in both Houses of Parliament—a point picked up by my noble friend Lord Rennard. It means that an order would have to be debated and approved by this House as well as the other place. Also, it must be accompanied by a statement from the Prime Minister setting out the reasons for seeking to vary the date of the poll. In this Bill, as I have indicated on previous occasions in response to earlier amendments, we wanted to do what was strictly necessary to establish fixed terms. Crucially, we have sought not to set out in statute parliamentary procedures where it was not absolutely essential to do so. I do not believe that this amendment falls within that category.
I also think it is important to note that this amendment would utilise the mechanism of the Speaker’s certification. No doubt we will return to this matter when we consider Clause 2 of the Bill. At this stage, I will flag up to noble Lords that I have added my name to an amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Howarth, Lord Martin and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, which would remove the Speaker’s certification in the context of Clause 2. I do not believe it would be appropriate to reinforce it here. In the light of the safeguards attached to the order-making power, I hope my noble friends will agree that this amendment is not necessary and will agree to withdraw it.
I now turn to the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton. The first would omit the order-making power from Clause 1 altogether; the subsequent amendments are consequential. My noble friend has reiterated concerns that he raised in Committee that the power in Clause 1(5) involves an important issue of principle—whether the Prime Minister should be able, by means of statutory instrument, to extend the life of a Parliament by up to two months. At the moment, it would require an Act of Parliament to extend a Parliament beyond the five-year limit set out in the Septennial Act as amended by the Parliament Act 1911. In Committee, my noble friend tabled amendments to say that such an extension could occur under the new regime of a fixed-term Parliament only if the Prime Minister were satisfied that the situation rendered holding the election at the scheduled time impractical or injurious to the economic, social or public health of the nation. As he indicated in moving this amendment, he now believes it would be better not to have it at all.
It is clear that the purpose of this Bill is primarily that we expect Parliaments ordinarily to last five years. However, for reasons which, again, we have highlighted and discussed, it may not be possible or desirable to hold the election on the scheduled date. If primary legislation had to be taken to move the date of the scheduled election in an emergency, then as long as that Bill had the consent of your Lordships’ House there would be no limits to extending the lifetime of the Parliament. It could go beyond two months, as happened during the Second World War. If the particular emergency arose which required that, no doubt legislation would have to be crafted, as my noble friend said. We are envisaging an extension for a very short period. We believe that it is properly contained by the requirement for a majority in both Houses of Parliament and by the fact that we have accepted the recommendation that it will require the Prime Minister to set out the reasons for it. I reiterate that having considered these matters, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not consider the power to be inappropriate in principle. Against that background, I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I was thinking along similar lines trying to anticipate possibilities. I thought about things such as the Olympics, but although they are not a crisis, neither are they an unforeseen circumstance. The same is true for the World Cup. They are not something that would necessarily get in the way, and those events would not require us to delay the holding of a general election in any event. To bring a general election forward, the provisions of Clause 2(1) could be utilised in any event.
My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace has accepted the provision that the Prime Minister would have to make a statement about why this power should be used, but I would have thought that if the Prime Minister planned to delay an election or bring it forward, he would in any event explain why. That really confirms what would be the practice. I cannot imagine the Prime Minister deciding to delay the election and not telling us why.
I do not want to respond on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rennard, but I am in a position where I suspect I might have to. An affirmative order requires just a simple majority, so that does not address the problem and the point made by my noble friend still holds. The only problem with his amendment is, as he admitted, in terms of drafting to refer to the Speaker’s certificate rather than to the principle that he advanced. I still maintain the argument I advance, for which I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who I have clearly persuaded on this matter. My noble and learned friend really did not provide a convincing argument in response to what I said. Primary legislation could be introduced and could provide for quite a long delay, but that is true in any event as long as you have a parliamentary majority. You could then craft it to the particular crisis of the time. He mentioned wartime when Parliament had to pass an Act each year extending its life.
The circumstances would be so exceptional that they would need a response crafted to the particular exception rather than just allowing a situation where a Prime Minister could come along and announce that he is bringing forward an SI to delay the election by two months and all that would be required is a majority in the House of Commons. We would then be in a position, if necessary, to block it, but I am not sure that the House would wish to invite a major challenge with the Commons, particularly on a matter of this nature, so I would be very wary about that. I would far prefer that there was all-party agreement and that legislation was introduced. If it was an emergency, you would require all-party agreement to get it through, and if you did not have it, you could not do so. I think that is entirely appropriate. I hope that my noble and learned friend will take up the invitation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to reflect on this and to think further because I remain unpersuaded that this subsection should remain in the Bill. In the interim, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
12: Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out “earlier or”
Amendment 12 agreed.
Amendment 13 not moved.
14: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, leave out “earlier or”
Amendment 14 agreed.
Amendments 15 to 18 not moved.
Consideration on Report adjourned.
House adjourned at 10.09 pm.